Depoliticizing The Zero Tolerance For Corruption

by L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu

The problem of corruption and the search for policy framework to fight it and its impediments to economic and social development has gained prominence as the basis by which Nigerians evaluate the effectiveness of their political leaders in post-colonial Nigeria. Consequently, many Nigerians particularly, the opposition parties, have scrutinized the ruling government’s commitment and attitudes towards The Zero Tolerance for Corruption- the campaign promise by the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party to combat and root out corruption in Nigeria.

What accounts for the rampant corruption in the country? To understand the existence of this difficult and complex social canker, we must examine its historical character. Our colonial masters designed colonial economic and political structure that was geared to expanding primary commodities export to feed the industrial machinery of Britain and ensured submissive labour force that supported the supply of cheap raw materials to the industrial machines of the mother country. For administrative support, the colonial masters depended on expatriates and few local notables such as the District Commissioners to keep the machinery of government running. In addition, through the system of indirect rule, the colonial masters relied on chiefs, whose allegiance they secured through inducement to maintain a lid on any political opposition

However, the overwhelming majority of natives were excluded from the formal structures of the colonial state. The only remaining avenue to sustain life for the local people was to engage in manual labour. The experience of the indigenous created the perception that the only way to escape the drudgery of the farm and to live comfortably like the colonial official was to be employed in the public service. Consequently, the state was seen as the means for social and economic upward mobility. Having been employed in the public service, the civil servants who were stilled tied to their kinship; social and cultural practices within the state were compelled by our extended family system to extract benefits for their families, communities and friends

Certainly, corruption is present to some degree in every society and it will persist to some extent, regardless of government efforts, policies and political will in Nigeria. However, it is imperative to examine the extent to which the government’s zero tolerance policies have succeeded in reducing corruption in Nigeria to enable Nigerians make informed decisions.

This article evaluates the government’s anti-corruption strategy and suggests that public participation; sensitivity and education are crucial to significantly reduce corruption in Nigeria. The government has attempted to entrench good governance policies as the primary anti-corruption strategies to address the underlying causes of corruption in the country rather than its symptoms. Towards this end, the government has focused on economic reform to eliminate conditions that foster corruption, restraint on political power, commitment to the rule of law, the strengthening of our law enforcement bodies and reform of public sector management.

However, there has been little or inadequate attention paid to the social environment and values that support and promote corruption in the country. This article maintains that for zero tolerance for corruption to succeed, the government must adopt comprehensive and sustainable approach that includes and promotes public vigilance, participation and education to make corruption more costly to engage in and the consequences inescapable.

The core of my argument is premised on the interesting doublethink that exists in our society. On one hand, we have a written constitution that guarantees individual rights and freedoms. We have laws that prohibit corruption, nepotism and bribery. Additionally, we have institutions like Serious Fraud Office, Human Rights and Administrative Justice, the Police Services and the Judiciary to assist people to seek redress when their fundamental freedoms and rights are infringed upon and penalizes those who abuse state authority for personal gain.

Yet, our attitudes the set of believes usually associated with securing our rights remain entrenched in assumptions that are grounded in ignorance and apathy. For example, why should a poor retired pensioner pay bribes or depend on goodwill of a public servant who is paid by taxpayers to process her insufficient monthly entitlements? Or why should parents pay bribes before their children are admitted into public educational institutions? Worst still, why should motorists bribe the police, who are entrusted with our security and represent the power of the state?

Furthermore, there is an entrenched perception that developmental projects are pursued and distributed out of benevolence from our political leaders rather than social justice and human rights requirement. Thus, construction of a road in a region or electrification of a community is viewed by the government and the people as some form of kindness. Subsequently, communities that benefit from government projects are required to show their gratitude to the government through electoral support. Failure to do so is equal to ungratefulness, which leads to the withdrawal of government services. In effect, we have traded our fundamental human rights for state, individual and institutional benevolence and given blank cheque to those that manage our tax money.

The notion that the enjoyment of our fundamental human rights is based on the generosity of the government and powerful individuals has contributed to the establishment of the personality cults in the country. For example, it is a common practice for people to use the name of the president or their relationship with a government official to intimidate their opponents or gain personal advantage over others. While the office of the presidency continues to warn the public to be bewaring of such people, the existence of personalization of government operation clearly encourages people to have confidence in their connections with powerful individuals than our constitution and its independent bodies. This sad phenomenon has created social environment, values and attitudes that support corruption. They have also made people more forgiving of corruption and raised the incentive to be corrupt. Thus, the government’s approach to fighting corruption will remain an illusion unless it tackles our attitudes and believes that support and promote corruption and seek to instill confidence in our public institutions by depersonalizing government operations.

Furthermore, the refusal of the colonial masters to share equitably the material resources of the land was bitterly resented by the local people. Thus, the repression associated with colonialism created reasonable suspicion in the minds of the locals that the ultimate goal of the colonist was to exploitation. The resentment towards these colonial practices created the belief among the natives that to cooperate with the colonizer or to dutifully work for the public good was to help the colonial master exploit and repress the people. In effect, the state as the avenue for self-enrichment was not only justified; it also encouraged disruptive attitudes among the native civil servants aimed at sabotaging the colonial state. The emergence of this stratagem within the infant public/civil service hampered the development of public service culture dedicated to serving the national interest. Thus, the excessive bureaucratic corruption that exists in our country today and the lack of commitment to national interest within our public institutions is inherently linked to colonial system we inherited at independence.

At independence, our new leaders maintained the political, social, economic and administrative culture of the colonial system. For political support, the new government relied on the rural folks and chiefs, whose allegiance they secured through system of inducements. In the name of national unity and nation building, all pluralistic tendencies were stifled. Press freedom was curtailed, one party system of government was adopted and centralized economy programs were adopted. The absence of political opposition and independent media to fully examined the government’s policies and demand transparency and accountability, contributed to the development of the culture of indifference on the part of our citizens as they became hopeless and voiceless thereby accelerating the moral decay of our society.

In response to the need for economic and social development in the country, the new leaders expanded the civil service under centralized structure headed by local authorities, government ministers and all-powerful president, who used system of patronage to maintain allegiance to the political elites. Inexperienced political cronies were appointed to fill key positions on corporate boards and vital sectors of the economy, which created inefficiencies, mismanagement, corruption, nepotism and total collapse of the economy.

As the commodities boom of the 1960s and 1970s slowed down, the resources to support huge bureaucracy and the patronage system that maintained loyalty to the political elites became very thin. The ensuing economic deterioration and scarce resources was capitalized on by the government to strengthen its intervention in the economy through excessive regulation of the private sector, introduction of foreign exchange controls, price controls, tax exemptions and export/import controls. Then again, these policies created conducive environment for more corruption as officials used the opportunities to elicit bribes and kickbacks. For example, hoarding became common phenomenon as artificial shortages were created to manipulate prices. Import licenses were given to the cronies of government officials who monopolized the importation of items such as flour, toothpaste, sugar and raw materials for exorbitant profits.

The repulsive manners by which our officials have looted the country have not gone unnoticed by the people. Thus, the anger and hunger for change by Nigerians have been sometimes difficult to quench. The once powerless and voiceless Nigerian has risen up and through strikes and demonstrations has demanded an end to corruption in the country. Unfortunately, in many cases, the genuine frustrations of Nigerians and their demand for an end to corruption have been exploited by a few adventurous military personnel to stage coups.

Regrettably, changes in governments because of the public demand for an end to corruption have not led to comprehensive strategies to combat the social canker in any sustainable fashion. More often than not, our new governments have adopted politically motivated strategies aimed at humiliating the previous regime in order to gain political support to entrench themselves in power. Worst example of this strategy was the House Cleaning Exercise of the Military government, when many people lost their properties for allegedly engaging in malpractices while others lost their lives without any fair and impartial trial. Unfortunately, the Zero Tolerance for Corruption is at risk of loosing its steam and being perceived as rhetoric.

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